Invercargill/Fiordland Pt. I: The Speakeasy

Before I came to New Zealand I was wholeheartedly expecting to say it was amazing by the time I left. However, after a week of Auckland, Queenstown, Dunedin and Invercargill, I was worried I was getting a little short-changed. People who have spent time in New Zealand rave about it more than anywhere else I know. Even the most idiotic English people I’ve met (including a guy I bumped into in a hostel who didn’t know who Charles Dickens was, and then accused me of being ‘posh’ for using ‘such an obscure reference’) find that New Zealand’s dramatic scenery and awe-inspiring vistas can conjure up words they (almost certainly) were not aware of before their arrival.

However, I really had to wonder what about Dunedin’s student-borne sofa-burning rituals or Invercargill’s remarkably surreal atmosphere people had managed to become so emotionally enveloped in; sure the scenery of the coastline was fairly impressive, and observing the sheer number of sealions/dolphins/seals/[insert marine mammal here] felt like a fairly unique experience, but overall it felt like a slightly exaggerated England. The weather was slightly damper, the humour was slightly drier, the farmland was slightly more sheep-y, the rolling hills were slightly more rollingy-er. However, yesterday was the final day of the Deep South tour with KiwiExperience, and one word right now sums up just how wrong I was about New Zealand: Fiordland.

Before I get stuck into unequivocally praising Fiordland National Park while wiping tears of joy off my keyboard, I have to give a mention to two things that happened since my last blog post. The first; I swam with dolphins. Yep, in New Zealand. This wasn’t your luxurious azure-blue-bathwater Caribbean dolphin experience, no. This all started with our bus driver, an eccentric little old man, preaching to us about how we must go into the sea no matter the weather. As we approached the coast, some of us started getting psyched up, preparing ourselves for a pretty bracing experience. It wasn’t freezing outside, but it wasn’t exactly warm outside.

Then we arrived at the beach. Suddenly, everyone was a little more hesitant. As our van got battered by wind and rain, and the sea was throwing about some pretty harsh dark-grey waves. A few of us got out to survey the situation, which made the prospect seem even less inviting. Standing on a small hill in our waterproof clothing, overlooking rough seas, we then saw a tiny bit of movement – one little dolphin jumping out of the water for just a fraction of a second. I have no idea why we did this, but we all suddenly went ‘Let’s get in there’. It seemed an odd time to do it, just after seeing a dolphin. It’s like we thought the dolphins were just imaginary bullshit and had to see one before believing in them. But either way, we snuck into the broken showers to change, and emerged a couple of minutes later, walked down to the beach, and I was the first to go in. Holy shit it was cold.

Shortly after I was joined by the others, all of whom voiced their agreement with my analysis of the water temperature by using language that would even challenge post-watershed TV censors. After floating about for a bit and attempting to kid ourselves into believing we were adjusting to the temperature (then again I couldn’t even feel my legs by this point, so I guess that’s a form of adjustment), and taking a few fairly large sub-zero breaking waves to the face, we saw some dolphins, about 20 metres away, jumping out of the breaking waves, which was pretty cool. We attempted to make our way toward them, past some pretty sketchy rock formations under the water. They ended up coming fairly close, and they seem to love human attention, which is odd for a wild animal, but after a while I simply could not face that cold any more, so I headed up to the showers to discover two things. First, I had forgotten my towel. That’s cool – as long as the hot showers work, I’ll be fine. Second, the hot showers didn’t work. Or the cold one. I was just stuck in a metal shipping container masquerading as a shower, barely able to build up enough muscle strength to wring out my swimming costume, and feeling like I was about to freeze to death. I re-dressed while still covered in freezing saltwater, stopped by the cafe and grabbed an overpriced mochaccino and tiptoed back to the bus in bare feet, where those who hadn’t taken the plunge silently greeted me with a look that eloquently and efficiently mixed pity with ‘what the Christ did you expect?’

Heading south from here, we ended up on the highway, hitting some surprisingly and unnervingly high speeds, until it all came to an end in fairly interesting and shocking fashion. In the UK, you’ll often see kestrels or other birds of prey hovering way above motorways to wait for roadkill. You’ll often see them, about 100ft+ up, just waiting in place to suddenly swoop down. I don’t know if the birds of prey (usually hawks) of New Zealand were inadvertently the product of inbreeding, but their inability to realise they need to stay the hell away from the road is both painfully obvious and can also be, unfortunately, fairly dramatic, as was the case here. As we were bombing down the road at about 80mph, a hawk appeared from a tree, looking to swoop down and pick something up, but obviously got spooked by us. It had a good 5 seconds to get the hell out of the way, but instead just flapped about in a remarkably directionless manner. It looked like it might just about manage to clear us until bang; we nailed it face-first with the corner of the bus at full speed. It made the most almighty crashing sound, and the top corner of the windshield was splattered with the contents of the retarded bird’s head. I was the only person awake at the time (I mean I hope that’s excluding the driver), so everyone was suddenly jolted upright to a sight they probably weren’t dreaming about waking up to.

After our ill-judged foray into high-velocity vehicular avian neurosurgery, we arrived in Invercargill, and man alive what a magically perplexing town. No joke; Invercargill is the strangest place I’ve ever been, and I’ve been to Liechtenstein.

Invercargill. Invercargill Invercargill Invercargill. That name will forever besiege the most anomalistic of my dreams and line my the overcoat of my imagination. A city of such grandiose peculiarity that merely writing (or reading) about it cannot fully propel one into the atmospheric void that surrounds and permeates its oddly wide avenues. A small sign marked ‘Invercargill’ stands way out in the countryside as you approach the city by car. Assuming a village will soon appear, you are instead greeted by more farmland. And some more. And some more. And then suddenly; a bungalow appears. And another. And another. I guess because bungalows are dreadfully inefficient when it comes to population density and floorspace, the suburbs of Invercargill – which are literally hundreds of copy-pasted rows of bungalows – are surprisingly vast in terms of area, particularly for a town of only 50,000 inhabitants. Which also lends it an unfortunately bleak atmosphere.

We kept on going and wound up outside Tuatara Backpackers Hostel on a deserted little street. After waiting outside for a fire alarm to stop ringing, the smell of dolphin still in my nostrils, we finally made it inside and pretty much everyone from the bus went straight to sleep. I, however, decided to take travelling alone to the next level; I decided to hit the town alone. By that point I had been on the road for almost seven weeks and covered just short of 18,000 miles; there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to do at least a little exploring. And a little bit it turned out to be. After stumbling across a map, I discovered that the quiet little street that our hostel was on was actually the city’s main high street. Ok, so it’s pretty quiet but there must be something going on, right? It’s 10pm on a Saturday night. I amble along the road, past all the closed shops and bars, when something remarkable happens; I walk past another human being. Trust me, this is a novelty in Invercargill; it is the most freakishly silent city I have ever been in. There is no noise, save the occasional police car that is aimlessly patrolling the empty streets. Then suddenly a light at the end of the tunnel; a bank. I felt like combining my exploratory evening with a beer, so asked him for the nearest supermarket, which he told me was a twenty minute (!) walk north from the centre. Sure it’s a long way but I guess then I see more of the city.

I left the main drag and as soon as I did so, I realised there was an unnerving lack of streetlights. So, walking a long an avenue/highway hybrid out of the centre with no man-made or natural light source, and feeling a little like I was in Pyongyang, I wandered for what seemed like an eternity until finally arriving at a Countdown, one of the main supermarket chains in the country. Ok so there’s the processed cheese, there’s the UHT milk, there’s the honey (they seem to make a lot of honey in NZ), there’s the excessive amount of dog food, and there’s… no alcohol. I approached the guy at the front counter and said ‘For fear of sounding like a total idiot, where’s the alcohol?’. He responded with a laugh and told me that I was currently in an ‘Alcohol Restriction Zone’ in the Southland region of New Zealand, and that supermarkets and convenience stores cannot sell alcohol by law. Seriously, kill me now, man.

(N.B. I just did some research on this and it turns out that Southland Council introduced this law – dubbed the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act – in 2012. TWO THOUSAND AND TWELVE. Four years ago! I’m sorry, but both that law and how recent its enactment was is an absolute embarrassment and something Southland should be ashamed of. How naive can you be? Are they not familiar with prohibition? Wasn’t exactly a success story, was it?)

Weary from the walk and my swimming antics in the day, and just wanting one goddamn beer, I asked him where I can get one, fully expectant of a response resembling ‘Nowhere’. Instead, he told me there are ‘bottle shops’, but they’re all closed. But then suddenly, he remembered something. ‘Go back into town. All the way back the way you came.’ A great start. ‘Keep going until you get to Calvin Street, then turn right and you’ll see the Calvin Hotel. Go in there and ask’. What in the hell does that mean? At this point I was so far gone, and on such a strange little adventure that I decided I would find out, so I headed back out into the obsidian streets of Invercargill’s drab suburbs until I hit Kelvin Street. Goddamn Kiwi accent. With still not so much as one other human being in sight in all directions, I found the hotel in question and entered the unusually green interior of its lobby, where the only person was a little woman behind the desk. This did not feel like somewhere people come to facilitate the start of a night’s drinking. ‘At this point it feels like it might have been a practical joke, but I was told that I should come here if I wanted beer’. The woman’s eyes lit up; ’Ah yes! Come with me.’

She led me through the silent lobby, past the totally full rack of room keys, to a small frosted glass door. ‘Go through here, past the poker machines’. I stepped through the door into a tiny box of a room filled illuminated by the flashing of about 30 poker machines, all being used by tiny little old women, in some strange hidden room of a hotel at 11pm. What on Earth is this place. I walked past them to discover an even tinier box of a room with a bar in it, with one tap. I approached the bartender (I mean who else was I going to approach? The room was empty.) and asked if they had a menu. She handed me a menu with a full two items on; Hefeweizen and American Pale Ale. A choice of two is odd in itself, but those two? ‘I’ll take the Hefeweizen I guess’. Rather than getting my beer, she got her phone out, dialled a three-digit number, waited for a moment, then said ‘Hi yeah Bill? We need a Hefeweizen in here. Yeah. Yeah just the one.’

Without a goodbye or a thanks, she hung up and left us both stood there for about two minutes in a sort of strange state of stasis where time didn’t seem to exist. No words were spoken and no eye contact was made until a small little guy burst through the door and handed her a brown paper bag, then vanished before I could even acknowledge his dedication to the cause of late-night speakeasy beer delivery. She handed it to me, told me to have a good night, and in a delirious stupor I made my way back past the little old ladies and the receptionist, to whom all I could do was laugh and say ‘What the f*ck is going on?’. She unlocked the lobby door and I headed back out into the silence, until I found myself sat on a park bench watching an old man do some form of interpretive dance to the sound of his own rendition of a makeshift Rihanna medley. It suddenly hit me that, in retrospect, I probably should’ve just accepted the sweet embrace of sleep like everyone else with a brain.

The following morning we somehow made it back onto the bus at 8am, before stopping at the small village of Garston to switch to a giant coach with daytrippers from Queenstown who were also heading to Milford Sound. I have to admit, though the drive was long and the weather ended up being pretty terrible, Fiordland is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen.

And that’s where I’ll leave it for now. Unfortunately I am currently incredibly sleepy in a hotel room, but have a lot more to say from here, so will make this a two-part entry. Stand by.

Gabe

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